Visiting archives and special collections

Maybe you have a piece of research that’s taking you to visit archives, special collections, or to a research library or historical society. While all these spaces are a little different from each other, they have some things in common.

All of these kinds collections focus not only on answering questions today, but making sure unique materials are preserved for the future. This means they have very different policies about how materials can be used and handled than a public library, school library, or academic library does. It is common for archives and special collections (or any other rare or unique materials) to have limits on how they’re used.

Common restrictions include having a staff member present and observing at all times, having a limited number of items on your work desk at once (often one book, manuscript box, or item at time), and requirements for handling items to avoid damage. These involve things like washing your hands thoroughly before handling materials, only using pencils on your worktable, or whether laptops or cameras can be used.

(Oh, and one factoid. You may think you need cotton gloves, but many collections no longer use them, at least for books and print items – they can cause damage in their own ways. Collections will let you know what they prefer.)

Libraries: Visiting archives and special collections (image of old fashioned bookshelves and old books)

1) Get An Overview

If you think you might like to visit a special collection, learn more about it. Chances are good there’s some information on a website that will give you an overview. This will often tell you important things like:

When are they open?

For special collections, this may only be weekdays during business hours, or maybe some Saturday hours. They may open late or close mid-afternoon (see #4 for why)

Do you need to make an appointment?

For many smaller organizations, you’ll need to make an appointment in advance so that staff are available.

Do you need to request items in advance?

Many archives have some items in off-site or otherwise less-accessible storage. They may need additional time to get these items ready for you. (More in #2, Plan Ahead)

What do you need to bring with you?

You may need to present a form of government identification to verify your identity, or be able to bring a camera or laptop, but different collections have different policies. Some collections may require additional documentation.

What are you not allowed to bring into the work space?

It’s common to ban large bags, pens, and any food or drink. There are usually storage options for coats, bags, and other necessary items, but you’ll want to plan ahead for them. These rules are usually to help protect items.

What might be really helpful?

Many collections now allow photography for personal use (usually this means no flashes or fancy equipment, and sometimes you’ll need to include a little card in the photo with the collection’s information.) This can be tremendously helpful if you’re working with a lot of material, but don’t want to transcribe it all while you’re there: you can take a good photo and work on it later, taking as much time as you want.

Check the collection’s policies carefully to figure out what’s okay. In some cases, photos may be okay some of the time, but not others.

Some examples of different sites

Want to see what that looks like in reality? Here are some different larger collections.

2) Plan Ahead

Sometimes you can visit without an appointment, but in many cases you’ll need to plan ahead in order to visit (or to access at least some materials.)

This is for two big reasons. The first is to make sure material is available that you’re interested in.

Some materials may be stored off-site for preservation reasons, and they may need a day or two to move the items to the reading space. Other materials may not be fully processed, and staff will have to check them for any issues before you can use them. Checking them involves looking for any preservation issues that would affect handling the items, and to check if there are confidential items in the collection (like student or medical information, which is sometimes the case in director’s files at a school)

The other big reason has to do with staffing, which I’ll talk about more in #4, Respect the Schedule.

Either way, you may want or need to figure out exactly what materials you’re interested in. This will help you plan your time, and make requests in advance as needed. In many cases, people who work in special collections will ask you a bit about your project. This is because they may know of additional resources that may not be obvious from the catalog or finding aids.

The other benefit of letting the staff know about your interests is that they can sometimes say “Oh, you don’t need to visit us for that, it’s digitised.” That means you can spend your visit focusing on other items or questions. (Sometimes, you may not need to make a visit in person at all!)

3) Read Information Carefully

If you need to schedule a visit in advance, there may be more information for you.

Larger organisations will probably have all of this available online (though it might be on multiple pages.)

We don’t have it online because we want to be able to talk about specifics of someone’s requests. Instead we send out a document which explains some of our less common policies (like needing to be escorted anywhere in the building), describes exactly what you can bring and can’t bring, and has some additional helpful information about food, parking, and transit options.

We encourage people to read this carefully, but not everyone does. That’s frustrating for us, frustrating for them, and no good for anyone. If they get here and are surprised we have really limited food options on campus, well, we tried our best to tell them!

4) Respect the Schedule

Do your best to arrive on time, and to wrap up your own work at the indicated closing time (or for any necessary break times).

As I mentioned above, most collections of unique materials require that a staff member be present at all times, for preservation and security reasons. The items need to be securely stored at other times, and it takes time to set all of that up, and to put it away at the end of the day.

In larger libraries and historical societies, there are staff members who focus on supervising the reading room. In smaller collections, one person is probably wearing quite a few hats.

In my library, researchers work at a large table in my office. This makes it awkward for someone else to supervise them, and it means I can’t schedule meetings, conference calls, or a number of other parts of my job while we have a researcher visiting. I can’t even take a bathroom break or duck into the stacks to get books for someone else’s question without a colleague covering for a couple of minutes!

So, we arrange our researcher visits so we have an hour in the morning to triage any new questions, and half an hour at the end so we can put things away and finish up other things. Some days I need every minute of that time.

It doesn’t help if a researcher runs late, either – I don’t want to get into the middle of something complicated if I’m going to have to stop for 15+ minutes to get them settled. And if they want to change their schedule, there’s a cascading challenge of meetings and plans I arranged around their original schedule, or other projects we’re working on.

Long story short, I really appreciate the researchers who clearly communicate their schedules, and who let us know if their plans change as soon as possible. I don’t want to force people into a rigid schedule (and sometimes things really do come up) but a little communication goes a long way to making the rest of my commitments work better.

5) Understand Why Policies Exist

A lot of archives and special collections policies may not make a lot of sense to you. But there’s probably a good reason they’re there.

If you have questions about a policy (especially if you have an accessibility need or something else like that), please ask about it as much in advance as you can.

Some policies are more flexible than others. (At least if you ask with more than a couple of days advance notice.) For example, we are strict about how materials are handled, and we can’t make exceptions for policies of our building (like all visitors being escorted).

But we can be more flexible with the schedule if our own calendars allow, especially if they give us a bit of warning. If someone’s tight on time, we may be able to digitize some items on request. We’re glad to help people refine their requests.

Interlibrary Loan

Here’s an amazing tool you may not know about (lots of people don’t.)

If your library doesn’t have something, there’s a decent chance they have a way to get it from other libraries that do. There are some things this doesn’t work for, and I’ll talk about that in a minute.

Books. Articles. Sometimes multimedia things.

So, how does that work?

Research: Interlibrary loan (image of books on shelves with hanging lights.)

Local library consortia

These days, many public libraries in individual towns or cities are part of larger groups of libraries, like a regional library network, system, or consortium.

These libraries have agreed to make it easier to share resources. Generally, in a library network, you can:

  • Check out books from any library in the network.
  • Return books to any library in the network.
  • Use electronic resources at any library in the network.
  • Request books from other libraries in the network to be picked up at your local library (or whatever library in the network is most convenient for you.)

As you can imagine, this can be really handy. It allows libraries to run as independent entities, with their own unique personalities and focus, but also have access to a wider range of material.

Do libraries buy differently because of this?

Often, yes, but in a good way.

For example, maybe in a network of 30 libraries, they might buy 15 copies of a given title between them – and that’s what they need. If each library had to buy their own for the people in their town to use, there are 15 other books those libraries couldn’t buy.

(The actual math is a lot more complicated, of course, but you get the idea: it works really really well for items that get some use, but are not immensely popular.)

How do you search for items?

Library networks will usually make it pretty obvious on their website and catalog pages (in my local consortium, you actually do the catalog search on the consortium site, rather than the individual library sites, but other library systems have you do the search on the specific library’s site.)

Try a search out at that link, and if you click through to a specific book, you’ll see that it tells you which libraries own copies, and which of those copies is available (or how long the hold queue is.)

Where do you get the books?

If you request books that come from a different library, you can request they go to a specific location (maybe a library in the network is close to your work, or whatever), and then you pick them up from the library’s hold shelf.

A hold shelf might be behind the library desk, or there might be shelves with paper bookmarks indicating which books are yours. (For privacy reasons, this should be thing that isn’t personally identifying like your name, so people can’t just browse the shelves and go “Oh, Mary’s checking out a lot of books about cancer/divorce/other topics.” Lots of libraries use a portion of your library card number.)

How long does it take to get items from a different library?

That depends on your network, but since the libraries in the network are usually pretty close to each other physically, items usually show up in a couple of days. Many consortia have vans that go from location to location, unloading the items for that library and collecting items going to other places.

These delivery and sorting systems usually don’t run on weekends (or maybe only on Saturday) so requests that include a weekend take a bit longer.

State networks

Many states have a larger network of libraries, that function like a larger network. They don’t have the same efficiency of delivery as local library networks (and they’re covering a much larger geographic area) so they are usually a bit slower.

Usually in this case, you will need to check a separate catalog than your usual catalog. In Massachusetts, this is the Commonwealth Catalog.

These state-wide systems vary widely, because states vary widely in how well supported their library services are on a state level (let your state representatives know how you feel about this!)

Are there limits on what you can get?

In most case, there are greater restrictions on how you use items through this service.

Common restrictions include:

  • Limit on the number of items you can have out.
  • Limit on the number of active requests.
  • Limit on how long you can keep them (some systems won’t allow renewals at all, in others you have some limited options for renewal.)
  • Some formats may not be available (especially multimedia things like DVDs or audio books on disc)
  • Items in high demand may not be available. Different systems define this in a variety of ways.
  • Recently released items may not be available. (Sometimes this depends a lot on demand.)

What else should I know?

Fines or other outstanding issues with your account may also limit your options. (If paying your fines is a hardship, talk to the library they’re at: many libraries have fine waiver months or other programs that reduce or eliminate the fine in some situations.

Libraries also have policies about how to deal with items you’re sure you returned but they don’t have checked in that can result in the fine being removed from your record.

Many libraries also make exceptions for unusual circumstances like you being sure you’ve returned something, fines due to hospitalisation or housing insecurity, or other challenging life events.

Interlibrary loan

Interlibrary loan (usually called ILL) is one more step out from that. It is used for books and items you can’t get through other area networks, and it’s commonly the system used for copies of articles (such as from academic journals or other publications.)

In both cases, you’ll need to ask your local library how to get access to these materials. They may have a specific form for you to fill out or can help you get access in other ways.

(For example, many people who live, work, or go to school in Massachusetts can get access to the electronic databases that the Boston Public Library subscribes to, so you wouldn’t need ILL to get access to materials you could get through there.)

What if I want an article?

Articles are a sort of special situation. You can use ILL to get access to articles. If the article is available somewhere in a database, it will usually come pretty quickly, normally as a PDF, in your email.

(Though again, the people processing these usually work Monday to Friday, so it may take a bit longer over holidays or weekends. Or if you want something more obscure or that fewer libraries have access to.)

Sometimes the article may be missing some images or figures, depending on how the original item was digitized. If this is the case, and they’re essential to why you wanted the article, let the library you got it through know: there may be some options.

This isn’t meant to duplicate a subscription to the journal, so if you want lots of articles from the same journal within a few years of each other, your library may tell you that you need to figure out some other way to access them (like a research trip to a library that has that journal so you can look at things directly.)

This is usually less of an issue for older materials (older than about 5 years), and the library you’re working with may have good suggestions about the best way you can move forward.

Transcribing magical texts (and an intro to digital archives)

Image of a large old-fashioned library of dark wood with a high arched ceiling. Text on image reads: "going digital : transcribing archival materials"

Transcribing magical texts

If you’re me, about half a dozen people mentioned an article from Atlas Obscura about a project transcribing magical texts for the Newberry Library in Chicago. (And then most of them followed it up with this being how movie plots get started and/or Buffy the Vampire Slayer references. I find the predictability of my people very reassuring, honestly.)

The project is interesting in itself (and the Esoteric Archives project it links to has a ton of historical materials about magic and related topics.)

But above and beyond the content, I’m always delighted to see interesting catchy articles that talk about the amazing things going on in archives these days.

Bonus tip: Atlas Obscura is a long-running website that highlights quirky or interesting history. They started as a tiny little two person blog back when, but in the past year or so they’ve started doing longer detailed pieces, many of which are fantastic intros to new resources and hidden gems.

A brief pause for a technical note

Here is where I should note that I’m a librarian, not an archivist: there’s overlap between the two, and we share the same professional degree. But the trained archivists I work with have a whole lot of training on topics like preservation, and digitization, and how you label archives materials that I don’t have.

That said, I work really closely with our archivist, and I’m very grateful she exists, because she knows all this important stuff I don’t know. (And she’s glad I exist, because mostly she’d rather work with the materials than answer reference questions, and I consider reference questions the most fun thing ever, even the ones I’ve basically answered a dozen times before.)

Here’s what I didn’t really know before I got my current job two years ago, and started working a lot more closely with an archivist:

  1. There are all sorts of tools for making materials available. Ok, I knew this part. Just not the rest of the details.
  2. Some of them are things you might use as an individual (like Flickr) but there are other tools that make digitizing entire books feasible in a very short period of time, compared to what it used to be (scanning or photographing each page.)
  3. The Internet Archive (and some other places, but many archives use the Internet Archive for a variety of reasons) makes it easy to upload entire books (that we can do this with, so things out of copyright and/or things an institution can give permission to make available.)
  4. For books with print text, they also do optical character recognition on the test, producing a machine-readable and machine-searchable copy of the text. This text isn’t perfect, but it works pretty well for many common uses.

To give you a sense of what this means, my predecessor had a painstakingly indexed list of all student names mentioned in our annual reports. Done by hand, over months, and it only has the students, so finding information about teachers or staff or other kinds of people associated with the school was overwhelming to search.

I can, with about 15 mouseclicks and keystrokes, load a volume of our annual reports, search across multiple years for a given name, and then click to the places where it’s been found. It takes maybe two minutes, depending on how quickly pages load.

Handwriting is hard.

Here’s the thing. Computers are pretty good at figuring out printed text. But they’re really lousy at handwriting. Especially any handwriting that is at all quirky. (Like your average Renaissance manuscript.)

That means that for handwritten manuscripts, you can make the images available fairly easily, but that’s not always a lot of help to researchers – it can be very time consuming to figure out what’s there (and if it’s worth the effort to spend more time on it), and of course, not everyone has the skills to read various forms of handwriting. (The term for this is paleography, and it’s something historians often learn as part of their degree and education.)

Also, some of these people had truly horrendous handwriting for their time period.

(At work we have a 20th century collection that includes handwritten notes from someone associated with a major historical figure whose handwriting has baffled at least half a dozen researchers. We currently have a couple of volunteers who are the world’s experts in deciphering this particular person’s handwriting, and we’re really sure the transcriptions they’re working on are going to reveal new and interesting information people do actually care about. Plus a lot of other random things like what the dogs and garden were up to – we’re mostly not transcribing those.)

Finally, of course, untranscribed or undescribed images aren’t accessible. They’re not available to people with visual impairments, and they can be tremendously hard to access for people with learning differences like dyslexia. Or just plain people who struggle with other people’s handwriting.

Want to transcribe things?

There’s probably a project out there for you. If you don’t want to transcribe these magical manuscripts, check out the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer program (which has people transcribing field notes, manuscripts, and related topics) or the National Archives Citizen Archivist project (documents in the US national archives collections) or there’s a long list from the Folger Library of other projects over here.

What’s particularly cool about this is that you don’t need to be anywhere near the collection, and you can do as much or as little as you like. You usually don’t get to choose your topic, but if you’ve got a particular passion (and can commit a bit of time) try contacting an archive that deals with your topic and asking if they need help. They may not have a snazzy online set up to do it yet, but they might be delighted to send you images and ask for a text transcription.